First-time author Nuraliah Norasid has clinched the richest literary prize in Singapore - the $25,000 Epigram Books Fiction Prize.
On top of the cash prize, her manuscript The Gatekeeper, about a young girl with Medusa-like powers, will also be published next year by Epigram Books, the award's organiser.
Now in its second year, the Epigram Books Fiction Prize is the only prize in Singapore for unpublished English-language novels. The results were announced yesterday at an awards ceremony and gala dinner at Pan Pacific Singapore.
Nuraliah, 30, a research associate with the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs, an organisation that examines socio-religious issues in Singapore, has had work published in the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore.
"I really did not think I would win because I don't know where my novel sits in the Singapore literary scene. It deals with different forms of marginality. It doesn't really fit into what people think Singapore literature is," she said.
The four-man judging panel comprised Epigram's founder Edmund Wee; Professor Philip Holden from the National University of Singapore's department of English language and literature; author and activist Constance Singam; and Haresh Sharma, resident playwright of theatre company The Necessary Stage. The judges praised the novel for being "extremely well-written", with "well-integrated" speculative elements from Malay and European mythology.
"We were also intrigued by the strange familiarity of the world of the novel and its relationship to issues of cultural marginalisation in contemporary Singapore. Above all, we were impressed by the confident and distinctive authorial voice," said Sharma at the ceremony.
Besides The Gatekeeper, the manuscripts of this year's three finalists will also be published next year. These are Fox Fire Girl by last year's winner O Thiam Chin, 39, about a girl from Ipoh with something to hide; 37-year-old architect Tham Cheng-E's speculative fiction novel Surrogate Protocol; and State Of Emergency, a story about an extended family with left-leaning members, by New York-based writer Jeremy Tiang, 39.
The three will also receive a new cash prize of $5,000 each.
Said Tiang, who flew back to Singapore to attend the ceremony: "I'm really happy. To be honest, for all of us on the shortlist, getting a cash prize and getting published is all you could ask for as a writer."
The contest is open to Singapore citizens, permanent residents and Singapore-born writers. Fifty-two entries were received this year. Besides the four winning titles, Wee said Epigram may publish another six of the submitted manuscripts. He also announced Epigram has expanded its operations to the United Kingdom this month, to "bring the wealth of Singaporean literature, the stories of our authors to the world through the UK".
The inaugural prize last year was valued at $20,000. No cash prizes were given to the finalists then. In response to the number of quality submissions received last year, Wee decided to double the kitty to $40,000.